500-Winner Wheldon Rejoins Ranks of Unemployed
By John Sturbin | Senior Writer
Fort Worth, Texas – Reigning Indianapolis 500 champion Dan Wheldon definitely will be on-site at Texas Motor Speedway for Round 6 of the IZOD IndyCar Series on June 11.
Odds are, however, that instead of strapping into the cockpit for the inaugural Firestone Twin 275s, Wheldon will be miking-up in the TV booth as race analyst.
Wheldon’s one-off contract at Bryan Herta Autosport with Curb/Agajanian expired at midnight Sunday, a few hours after he crossed the finish line as improbable winner of the 100th anniversary Indy 500. Wheldon took the checkered flag at the 2.5-mile Indianapolis Motor Speedway seconds after rookie JR Hildebrand of Panther Racing crashed exiting Turn 4 on the 200th and final lap of “The Greatest Spectacle in Racing.”
Wheldon was presented a check for $2.56-million Monday night in Indianapolis from a purse of $13.5- million.
“That’s definitely my biggest unemployment check so far,” Wheldon joked during a promotional visit Tuesday afternoon in downtown Fort Worth, where TMS President Eddie Gossage offered the Brit $160 to compete here. Despite that largesse, team-owner Herta had not indicated to Wheldon that he planned to enter the No. 98 William Rast-Curb/Big Machine Dallara/Honda for the annual June
Saturday night race.
“I’m very hopeful that I can race at Texas,” Wheldon said after greeting the lunchtime crowd at Frankie’s Sports Bar in Sundance Square. “I would absolutely love to continue with Bryan’s team and certainly that would be the intention. If the funding can be found and he feels he’s prepared to be able to run the car competitively, he’ll do it. Even in May there was talk of maybe some opportunities where we could continue. But Bryan is not just going to do it to do it. He’s not going to do it half-heartedly. If it’s right, he’ll do it. But if not, then no.”
As a free-agent, Wheldon added he is open to offers from any IndyCar team-owner for this race and/or the rest of the season. “I don’t field those calls,” said Wheldon, a 32-year-old resident of St. Petersburg, Fla. “My agent fields those. I haven’t spoken to my agent for a while, so I honestly don’t know (if a deal is in the works). I’ll be disappointed if I’m not racing. But I’ll be here nonetheless.”
Wheldon made his debut for VERSUS last Friday during the Firestone Indy Lights Freedom 100 at IMS. He has a tentative deal to work the booth with VERSUS at TMS, Iowa Speedway and the Streets of Toronto.
“For me as well, it’s not about just driving for any team that gives me an opportunity,” said Wheldon, a native of Emberton, England. “My management has put me in a good position where I don’t need to do this for the money. It’s about picking the right opportunity and making sure it’s competitive. And I think that’s even moreso now because of the fact that we’ve come off Indy with so much momentum.”
Wheldon said he wasn’t sure what sort of deadline Herta is working under to possibly change plans
and enter at TMS. Herta, who was Wheldon’s teammate at Andretti Green Racing, ran the race-winning car at IMS in a technical collaboration with Sam Schmidt Motorsports.
“I would say the car is not ready to go and will need to be stripped and checked after the 500 miles,” Wheldon said, “but I would like to think that could be turned around pretty quickly. It’s going to get to a point and Bryan’s going to say, ‘No, I can’t do it.’ And I don’t know when that is. To be able to jump into Bryan’s car would be really cool. The relationship with that team is beyond good. Certainly winning the Indianapolis 500 will help.”
Wheldon said he was intrigued by the concept of the Firestone Twin 275s, featuring two 125-lap races with a one-hour break in-between.
“This idea where, in effect, you do two slightly shorter races but you draw randomly in the second race for grid positions is something everybody is really excited about,” Wheldon said. “Picking a grid position for the second one – that’s just something that hasn’t been done and it’s exciting. I genuinely believe Eddie is the master of this stuff. Some people would have just reversed the grid. But I think there’s going to be a fun factor…of watching the coverage of picking the positions. It’s going to add another element of excitement to the TV broadcast, which will give me more to talk about.
“The biggest thing with these Twin 275s is going to be the intensity. It’s going to add to the intensity, and hopefully the chaos, which I think everybody wants to see. You can’t afford to give up any spots, so you’ll be seeing some three and four-wide racing down the straights, no doubt. It’ll probably go down to two or three-wide in the corners. But it’s what the fans wanted to see and it’s really spiced-up that aspect of it.”
Wheldon remains winless in 11 career starts at “The Great American Speedway!” but has posted seven top-10 finishes, including four top-fives. He has led 247 laps around the 1.5-mile TMS quadoval, including 171 en route to a third-place finish in 2006 for Target Chip Ganassi Racing.
“I love Texas and the thing that bugs me about this racetrack is the one thing I hate about it – I haven’t won here yet,” Wheldon said. “I want to be the one shooting those guns off (in Victory Lane), so I am going to do everything in my power to be here.”
VERSUS will broadcast the Firestone Twin 275s live beginning at 7:45 p.m. (CDT). Tickets are available by visiting www.texasmotorspeedway.com, or by calling the Texas Motor Speedway ticket office at (817) 215-8500.
Wheldon first won the Indy 500 in 2005 while driving for Andretti Green Racing, where his teammates were Dario Franchitti, Tony Kanaan and Bryan Herta. As the youngest/single team member, Wheldon was subjected to a year’s-worth of hazing from his “big brothers.”
“Somebody said, ‘What’s the biggest difference between you winning in 2005 and 2011?’ ” Wheldon said during a Q&A session with fans. “And I said, ‘I could remember the Sunday night in 2011.’ I couldn’t remember in 2005. I was sponsored by Jim Beam and I’m sure it was a good time. But I couldn’t tell you anything about it because I can’t remember. I was a little crazy. I was enjoying life to the maximum.”
Wheldon since has married and he and wife, Susie, are the parents of sons Sebastian Daniel, 2, and year-old Oliver James. “I’m probably more happy now than I’ve ever been in my life,” Wheldon said. “It’s just very different; it’s almost an opposite to what it was back then.”
As a car-guy, Wheldon is awaiting delivery of the 2011 Chevrolet Camaro Convertible Pace Car
that traditionally is awarded the Indy 500 champion.
“One of the most exciting things is my garage at home, I’m pretty OCD and my garage is beautiful,” Wheldon said. “It’s got my 2005 Pace Car (Chevrolet Corvette C6) in it, and the guys at Indianapolis Motor Speedway are sending the new one. I can’t wait to take a picture of them both sitting there. That’s going to make me really proud. Really excited about that. I’m definitely going to Tweet that one.
“There was only 50 of these (Pace Car Convertibles) built and it’s the 50th one. The only time it was driven was on my parade lap, which I’m bummed about now because I was throwing water everywhere and jumping up and down on the seats. That hurt it a little bit. But also in the VIN (Vehicle Identification Number), the last three digits are ‘500,’ so I’m really excited about that.”
Wheldon spent the 2009-10 IndyCar seasons driving for Indianapolis-based Panther Racing, which carries the National Guard as its primary sponsor. As such, he is well-versed with the sacrifices made by this country’s military personnel.
During Tuesday’s program Wheldon greeted and competed with Army soldiers stationed in Kandahar,
Afghanistan, through the nonprofit organization, “Pro vs. GI Joe.” Major David Wishart, a Fort Worth resident and Abilene native, enlisted the help of Staff Sgt. Michael R Czajka, of Garden City, Mich.; Sgt. Anthony Atiyeh, of Livonia, Mich., and Sgt. Jacob Wright, of Onstead, Mich., to compete against Wheldon in the Xbox game, “Call of Duty: Black OPS” live via Internet.
Wheldon was teamed with a wounded soldier, Staff Sgt. William Moleon, and Wishart’s son, Joe, currently a senior in the University of Texas’ ROTC program. Team Wheldon pulled another upset by defeating the soldiers stationed in Afghanistan in the online game.
“I’m amazed at the stories I hear with what goes on over there and to think that they are representing us and allowing us to run in our country freely is something that I’m extremely proud of,” Wheldon said. “I personally think what I did Sunday by far pales in comparison. They deserve way more accolades for what they do because it’s truly phenomenal.”
ABC’s high-definition broadcast of the 100th anniversary Indianapolis 500 delivered a 4.3 preliminary overnight rating in metered markets – up from 4.0 in 2010. Viewership increases were realized in Chicago, Las Vegas, Tampa, Fla., Cincinnati and Dayton, Ohio, among others, of the 56 markets during the noon-3:30 p.m. (EDT) broadcast.
“All-in-all, the race was excellent with storylines throughout that kept the viewers’ and spectators’ attention,” said Randy Bernard, CEO, INDYCAR. “We saw a significant television increase in the metered markets, and it’s important for us to keep our momentum moving upward to 2012. With the introduction of the new car, we think it’s a great storyline and we’re optimistic there are more good things to come.”
ABC will televise IndyCar Series races from The Milwaukee Mile (June 19), New Hampshire Motor Speedway (Aug. 14) and the IZOD INDYCAR World Championships at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16).
Fourteen IndyCar Series drivers will put in a day of testing on The Milwaukee Mile oval today,
Firestone Indy Lights driver/car combinations are scheduled to test on Thursday.
Both series return to the historic 1-mile track after a year’s absence. Scott Dixon, who won the IndyCar Series race in 2009, will be among those getting re-acquainted with the flat racetrack on Friday.
Dixon, fifth-place finisher in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, will be joined by Target Chip Ganassi Racing teammate and reigning series champion Dario Franchitti; Indy 500 runnerup and Chase Rookie of the Year JR Hildebrand of National Guard Panther Racing; Graham Rahal, third-place finisher in the 500 and Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Charlie Kimball; Team Penske’s Ryan Briscoe, Helio Castroneves and series points-leader Will Power; Telemundo Newman/Haas Racing’s Oriol Servia and Ana Beatriz of Dreyer & Reinbold Racing.
Also at the track today will be Andretti Autosport drivers Danica Patrick, Ryan Hunter-Reay, Marco Andretti and Mike Conway; Vitor Meira of A.J. Foyt Racing; the KV Racing Technology-Lotus contingent of Indy 500 fourth-place finisher Tony Kanaan, Takuma Sato and E.J. Viso; Ed Carpenter of Sarah Fisher Racing; Dreyer & Reinbold Racing’s Justin Wilson and Beatriz; Simona de Silvestro of HVM Racing; James Jakes of Dale Coyne Racing and Conquest Racing’s Sebastian Saavedra.
“I’m looking forward to going back,” Carpenter said. “It’s a very challenging racetrack for drivers, engineers and teams, so there’s definitely a premium on getting a good balance on the car and a good setup. We’ll be working on that during the day.”
Firestone Indy Lights competitors scheduled for laps on Thursday include Josef Newgarden, the Firestone Freedom 100 winner and series points-leader, along with Sam Schmidt Motorsports teammates Esteban Guerrieri, Bryan Clauson and Victor Carbone. Also scheduled to participate are Team Moore Racing’s Victor Garcia and Gustavo Yacaman; Team Jensen’s David Ostella; Andretti Autosport’s Stefan Wilson; Bryan Herta Autosport’s Duarte Ferreira and O2 Racing’s Peter Dempsey.
– John Sturbin can be reached at email@example.com Comments